"We've lost our minds. That's pretty much what it was," said Karen Bertsch, principal and teacher at Woodlands Academy. "But, it was important to each one of us."
Bertsch is one of four teachers who started the small non-profit private school after leaving their jobs in the public school system. Bertsch, Terry Martin, Welby Nalls and Jonie Kitching were the 6th grade team at a charter school when they felt the need to create a program for students who they believe fell through the cracks.
"We all felt something was missing," Bertsch said. "We're trying to address a niche that gets left out and they're the students that are average to above-average."
Martin says schools have programs which cater to gifted students and struggling students, but the ones in the middle are being left out.
"There are a lot of bright students who aren't being challenged generally in (public school) classrooms, especially in grades four through eight," Martin said.
Bertsch says part of the problem was that no one really knew the above-average kids were essentially forgotten.
"They can come to class. They can do the work. Things are great and parents are happy, because they are getting As, but they're not being challenged," Bertsch said. "If you have to have a 130 IQ to get into the gifted and talented program, what about the child with 128?"
These teachers believe so much in what they're trying to accomplish, they all put in money from their modest teachers' salaries from before and have been working without a paycheck since September 2005.
"I really would not like to continue too much longer like that," said Martin. "It's stressful because my two younger sons are still in college."
Two of the teachers rely on their spouses to live. Two others work multiple jobs to make ends meet.
"I work full-time doing IT at a data center," Nalls said. "I see where we're heading and it's worth it."
Right now, the fledgling school only has 22 students enrolled. Teachers hope to expand their fourth through eighth grade program to nearly 40 next fall.
"We're really hoping we can pay ourselves next year, that would be nice," Bertsch said.
Tuition at Woodlands Academy is $5,500 a year. Bertsch says they wanted to create a private program that was still affordable to middle-class families, especially since their program is so new.
"It is a huge leap of faith for a parent to sign up their child with unknowns," Bertsch said.
Parent Suzanne Sandifer says when you meet the teachers, it becomes an easy decision.
"The parents see that they believe in what they're doing and the parents then believe in them," Sandifer said.
Bertsch compares their efforts to scratching an itch all four teachers had – an itch to get out of a public school system she believes is built on red tape.
"It needed to be done and it was something that we said if we don't try, if we never try it, we never know if it'll work," she said.
Even though they have little money, a small student body and a school facility in the basement of a small church, the teachers at Woodlands Academy will carry on because they think they can.
Bertsch said, "The Little Engine That Could, I think that sums us up beautifully."
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